One of Russia's most beloved cakes has an unusual history: we know exactly who invented it and when. The whimsically named Bird's Milk Cake (in Russian fairy tales, "bird's milk" is a luxury so fantastic it doesn't even exist) was created in 1978 by Vladimir Guralnik, the head of the Praga restaurant confectionary shop. It is an unusual cake that reverses the usual ratio of cake to filling: Guralnik's rich confection alternates thick, ethereally light layers of souffle with thin layers of cake, topped by a chocolate glaze. If you can't make a quick shopping trip to Moscow, Guralnik has shared the recipe and helped Russia Beyond the Headlines adapt it for Western kitchens. The trick of the souffle is agar-agar, a thickener that withstands the high temperature needed to make the sugar syrup.
Cake: 3/4 c sugar o 3/4 c margarine o 3 eggs o 1 1/2 c sifted flour o 1/2 tsp vanilla
Souffle: 4 Tbsp agar-agar o 1 3/4 cup water o 2 1/2 c sugar o 1 tsp lemon juice o 3 egg whites o Pinch of cream of tartar o 1 c butter, softened at room temperature o 1/2 c sweetened condensed milk
Chocolate glaze: 1 c bittersweet chocolate bits o 2 Tbsp butter
1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F and grease two 9" round cake tins.
2. Prepare cakes: Cream the margarine and sugar; add the eggs and beat well; mix in the flour and vanilla. Pour in cake tins to form two 1/2-inch layers of dough. Place pans in the top part of the oven and bake until golden - about 10 minutes. Remove and cool on cake racks.
3. For the filling: In a small saucepan, mix the agar-agar and one cup of water and place on a low flame. Heat, stirring, until dissolved and then remove from heat.
4. In a large saucepan, mix the together the remaining 3/4 c water, sugar and agar-agar mixture. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and whisk constantly, until the syrup thickens (about 40 minutes). When a spoon lifted from the syrup forms an unbroken stream, stir in the lemon juice and then remove from the flame. Pour into a heat-resistant measuring cup (or container that allows for easy pouring) and cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally.
5. In a small bowl, cream the butter and then mix in the sweetened condensed milk. Set aside.
6. In a large bowl, beat the 3 egg whites with a pinch of cream of tartar until the mass forms firm peaks. Beating constantly with a mixer, pour in the cooled sugar and agar-agar syrup in a thin stream. The resulting mixture should be thick and slightly shiny. Let stand 5 minutes.
7. Add the butter and condensed milk mixture to the egg white and syrup mixture, mixing gently with a whisk at first and then with an electric mixer until thoroughly combined.
8. To construct the cake: Grease a 9" spring-form pan. Place one cake at the bottom of the pan and cover with half the souffl´e mixture. Place the second cake on top and then cover with the rest of souffl´e mixture. Place the cake in the coolest part of the refrigerator for 15 minutes.
9. For the glaze: in a double boiler, melt the chocolate bits and butter; mix well. Take the cake out of the refrigerator and use a knife or spatula to cover the cake with chocolate glaze. Place in the refrigerator to set.
10. Before serving, remove the sides of the spring-form pan. To serve, heat a knife under hot water to cut through the glaze without cracking it.
Tip: As soon as you are done with the pans that contained the agar-agar and sugar mixture, immediately place them under hot running water to clean before the mixture sets.